As a writer, I spend much time sitting and thinking. It's a habit that's hard to break.
So on a muggy July morning, when I found myself in seat No. 5 of a racing shell on the Potomac River, I started to muse about what I was doing there. It was not a place for metaphysical questions. I promptly caught a crab -- missing the water with the blade on my rowing stroke -- and was knocked flat on my back by my oar.
I had signed up for three weeks of lessons in sweep rowing -- that is, rowing in a shell with one oar as opposed to rowing in a scull with two. The lessons were offered by the Alexandria Crew Boosters, an organization that supports rowing in the city's public schools. The Crew Boosters also sponsor a summer rowing program at which high school students are taught both sweep rowing and sculling. This summer, for the first time, there was room for adults in the program, and 18 of us enrolled.
My connections with crew go back to the days when my daughter, Clay, rowed for T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria and I jumped up and down on the banks of Occoquan Reservoir yelling, "Go, T.C.!" I've always admired the grace of the boats and the elan of the rowers. This spring I started sculling. Lessons in sweep rowing were a logical extension.
The first thing to know about rowing is that you get up early to do it because that's when the water is calmest. At 6 a.m., we assembled in the Alexandria Schools' boathouse at the foot of Madison Street in Old Town. Two-thirds of us are women; we ranged in age from the early 20s to the mid-50s. Only a couple of us had any experience with this kind of rowing, although the majority had done some sculling.
The second thing to know is that you spend a lot of time carrying heavy objects in and out of the boathouse. You start with the oars, then the coach's launch, and finally the shell itself.
The third thing is that rowers do everything together. Each has a number -- the bow seat is one, the stroke eight. You count off when you line up to carry out the shell. You count off on the dock before getting in and again on the water after you have tied your feet into the shoes fastened in front of your seat.
Our boat was the Jack T. Franklin, one of Alexandria's old Pocock eights. (These shells were designed more than 20 years ago by George Pocock, a legendary Seattle rowing coach and boat builder who greatly advanced the art of boat design.) Pococks are used for novices because they are so stable. They are also heavy, being made of wood rather than fiberglass. But they're beautiful; I particularly admire the pattern of whorls on each of the sliding seats.
Our coach was Beth Yancey, Alexandria's head novice girls coach and a former T.C. Williams rower. She rode beside us in a launch and, using a megaphone, critiqued our technique: "Your oar isn't fully blocked up, number five!"
Our coxswains were Alexandria students; Claire Burton was in charge of the Jack T. Franklin the first morning. Half the size of even the smallest of us, she ordered us about with aplomb.
Under Burton's direction, we maneuvered our shell to the dock's edge and set it in the water. Then eight of us opened our oarlocks and put our oars in place.
Most of the teaching took place on the water, although those who had never rowed got some landbound instruction first. The rowing stroke, a smooth continuous motion, is not difficult to learn, though hard to perfect. The tricky part is rowing with other people.
In addition to the stroke, a beginner has to worry about having his or her oar blades feathered (parallel to the water) or blocked (at right angles to it). We started out using blocked oars and rowing with our arms only -- the pick drill. First, the stern four while the other rowers balanced the boat. Then six of us. And, if we were really together, all eight.
Balancing the boat, or finding the keel, is an important part of rowing. Ideally, all eight rowers should be able to lift their oars off the water simultaneously without tipping the boat. (In fact, during the recovery part of the stroke, all oars will be in the air.) Like so many other things about rowing, finding the keel sounds simple to do but it's not. The Jack T. Franklin listed heavily to port the first week.
The secret to rowing well is concentration. You fix your eyes on the back of the rower in front of you and try to get your blade into the water at the same time as everyone else. The hard physical work comes later, when all eight rowers are together. Then the stroke is able to increase the pressure and the boat really begins to move.
This is no time for metaphysical musings. You have to focus on what you body's doing. When everything works, you feel like a cog in a large machine. I think, although I'm still new at it, that this is part of the mystique of sweep rowing, the surrender of the individual to the larger whole. It explains the bonding among people who row together. Collectively they can do something none of them can do alone.
But it's hard for someone who prizes individuality to surrender herself. Sculling might be a better sport for loners. When everything goes well in a single scull, you feel as if you and the boat are one, like the mallard duck floating on the water beside you.
It's probably possible to feel this way in a racing shell too, particularly after rowing for a while with the same people. But it's not something that happens in three weeks.
However, at the end of three weeks all of us had a new vocabulary: rigger, foot stretcher, power ten, on keel. We felt a considerable tie to one another. After all, there we were every morning, watching the sun rise over the antennas of the Naval Research Laboratory.